Sometimes the critics get it wrong. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve got it wrong with “Men, Women, and Children,” the latest drama from director Jason Reitman. They’ve pegged it as an overwrought after-school special on the dangers of technology, porn, and the world wide web. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but I think it’s safe to assume that Reitman is aiming for something that will inspire conversation, not reductive conclusions. Granted, we’ve seen sexually-charged suburban ensembles before (American Beauty is an Oscar-winning highlight), but certainly not in the context of America circa 2014. Considering the myriad forms of communication at our fingertips, it’s a strange time to be in love, and this film explores the positive and, yes, negative effects of such a paradigm. Shot in Austin, TX, the story is an examination of both young love and marriage in the internet age, and the cast assembled here suit their individual roles perfectly. Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt as a sad-sack married couple longing to rekindle that fire, even if it means temporarily breaking the vows they made to one another. Anson Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever as teenagers squirming under the pressure of parental expectations, the former particularly affected by his mother’s recent abandonment, as well as a school bearing down on him for quitting the football team. Jennifer Garner plays Dever’s mother, a draconian technophobe who tracks her daughter’s every movement online, and Dean Norris plays Elgort’s father, a man whose quiet demeanor belies the anger he still bears towards his wife for leaving him and their son. Judy Greer is the woman he unexpectedly takes a shining to, and the mother of a cheerleader who is sorely misguided in her attempts at celebrity online and otherwise.
Elgort and Dever are the heart and soul of the picture, and Elgort is something of a minor revelation. He’s able to convey so much with very little, at once suggesting anger towards the world he often calls the “pale blue dot” (referencing the book by Carl Sagan), and a yearning for some like-minded kinship. While the two of them represent fragile doves brought together by technology, Allison and Chris are teenagers whose sexual and physical identities have been torn asunder by technology, to the point of anorexia and a hyper-sexual disorder. Naturally, Garner’s character eventually threatens the peace of Elgort and Dever’s budding romance in a manner that can only be described as contrived, but that’s an expected occupational hazard when reviewing an ensemble like this, wherein the filmmaker is trying to draw comparisons between a wide swath of characters. While the critics sharpen their knives over a message that doesn’t exist (“technology is bad for us,” they’ve concluded), I point you to Jennifer Garner’s character. She’s terrified of video games, social networking, and the internet age…and her peers make fun of her for it. She’s the catalyst for a climactic slice of melodrama that renders such beliefs as nothing more than fear-mongering. The answer isn’t as easy as “the internet is evil” or “communication is hard.” Smart phones, tablets, computers…these devices have had a tangible and arguably profound effect on the ways in which human beings live and relate to one another, and “Men, Women, and Children” attempts to start a conversation about that. Jason Reitman has succeeded in that regard. Side Note: Narration by Emma Thompson, steeped in philosophy and British annunciation, is a dryly comic reminder of the film “Stranger than Fiction.”